Metro on Tuesday tapped the chief executive of a Texas transit agency to lead the system through safety and pandemic-related challenges that have frustrated riders and strained public transportation in Washington.
Clarke has served as president and chief executive of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the public transit agency in Austin, since 2018 and previously had leadership and safety roles at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston. He will begin at Metro during the late summer, although a date hasn’t been set.
The leadership change comes amid upheaval at transit systems nationwide during a pandemic that has significantly dented ridership and revenue numbers. Clarke also will navigate a federal safety investigation — his arrival possibly coinciding with the return of Metro’s suspended series of rail cars, which transit officials hope is an impetus for growth on the ailing rail system.
Clarke said Tuesday that he is undaunted by Metro’s challenges, which include shifting the focus from a heavily commuter-based system toward off-peak trips, service workers, downtown visitors and tourists as Metro seeks to recover from rising telework. Metro Board Chairman Paul Smedberg touted Clarke’s experience shepherding Project Connect, a $7 billion expansion of Austin’s bus and rail service through a voter-approved referendum in 2020.
Smedberg said during a news conference that Clarke was selected from 45 applicants after a nationwide search. He said the board saw in Clarke a leader “who we believe will redefine how Metro will continue to be part of the region’s economic recovery after the pandemic, as well as the individual who will set the vision for how this organization will move forward over the next several decades.”
Clarke, who will earn $485,000 annually, said that he plans to ride Metro daily and that riders “will see me out on the system a lot.”
“I want to help, learn and listen from all of you on how we can work together to make Metro the best agency in the country, and be proud of how great the service is for this community,” he said.
Transit officials have floated ideas similar to Austin’s Project Connect to help Metro through turbulent times ahead, as more than $2 billion in federal coronavirus relief starts to run out next year.
While a federal grant and recent ridership increases have raised optimism at Metro, it’s likely not enough to avoid service cuts unless the transit agency finds other financial sources, such as increased subsidies from jurisdictions it serves.
“My personal belief is transit is the ultimate opportunity connector for a community, and so we need a society to invest in services that impact people, especially people that need those services the most,” Clarke said. “Where there’s challenges, there’s amazing opportunities.”
He set a goal of trying to return the rail network to a pilotless system, which is how Metrorail operated until a 2009 train collision at Fort Totten that killed nine people.
That system was disabled, although it was not found to be at fault. Engineers and some longtime passengers say returning to automation would remove human error, reduce delays and make for a smoother ride.
Riders, government leaders and environmental groups also have pushed Metro to speed up converting its bus fleet to zero-emission vehicles, a transformation Clarke also is undertaking at CapMetro. He said he would review the pace of the plan, adding that his focus is on “doing it right.”
Leaders across the region said Tuesday that they were supportive of Clarke and eager to work with him.
Democratic Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, of Maryland, and Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, of Virginia, praised Clarke’s selection in a joint statement, noting his experience as a former chief safety officer for the Boston-based MBTA.
“We look forward to meeting with Mr. Clarke as soon as possible to learn more about his experience managing transit in major and rapidly-growing cities, and to discuss Metro’s urgent needs and our shared priorities for the future,” they said. “We are ready to work with Mr. Clarke as he takes on the challenges Metro faces as our region moves forward from the pandemic.”
During a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said he is familiar with Clarke’s work in Austin and is “wishing him every success.”
Others said they hope Clarke will improve transparency and customer service at the transit agency.
In Northern Virginia, many have grown frustrated over delays on the 11-mile Silver Line extension, which will bring Metro to Loudoun County via Dulles International Airport. The project, nearly four years behind schedule, hasn’t been overseen by Metro, although leaders say they are hopeful that Metro can soon begin passenger service.
“I do want him to know that I am ready and anxious to work with him to attack all of the many challenges faced by Metro,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeffrey C. McKay (D-At Large) said in a statement. “I know that an aggressive change agent is needed at [Metro] to be more transparent, customer oriented and to change the overall culture of the agency. We all must work with him to be successful.”
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Raymond Jackson, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents most Metro employees, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday about the change in Metro leadership.
Clarke’s role in Austin was preceded by two years as vice president of operations and member services at the Washington-based American Public Transportation Association, leading safety audits and industry peer reviews throughout the country.
Before that, he spent six years at MBTA in roles that included deputy chief operating officer and director of security and emergency management.
“Safety, to me, is a cultural element and a value,” Clarke said Tuesday. He also praised his predecessor, Wiedefeld, 66, who had guided Metro toward greater reliability and ridership growth until the pandemic and Metro’s train shortage upended operations.
Metro is in its seventh month operating without nearly 750 of its 7000-series trains, the agency’s latest and previously most reliable rail cars. The loss of nearly 60 percent of the agency’s fleet has meant lengthy waits for trains as more workers are returning to offices.
The 7000 series was suspended in October after a National Transportation Safety Board investigation into a Blue Line derailment outside the Arlington Cemetery station uncovered a defect affecting nearly 50 rail cars over four years. The defect causes the cars’ wheels to widen from each other. Federal investigators continue to look into the cause of the defect.
The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, a regulatory agency that monitors Metrorail safety, ordered the 7000 series out of service until Metro can provide the commission with a plan on how it can safely operate the trains. Metro has said it plans to gradually return the trains through the summer.
Metrorail ridership is about 35 percent of pre-pandemic levels, while the recovery of Metrobus has been much stronger, at 87 percent. Clarke said he is optimistic that rail ridership will rebound when Metro returns to full service.
“A state of good repair leads to good reliability and safety, and that’s going to get more and more people back,” he said. “People want frequency and they want to know they’re safe.”
Clarke’s love of transit wasn’t just built through work. He met his wife, Kimberley, 19 years ago while both rode the subway to a Boston Red Sox game. He offered her his seat and she declined. They wound up in the same car during a transfer, then talked and met up after the game.
“Transit, to me, is a lot more than buses and trains,” he said. “It’s about connecting people together. You can’t meet on [Interstate] 66. You are never going to meet your future spouse. But come to [Metro] and you can.”
Ian Duncan contributed to this report.